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Occupy Cafeteria

Michael Hudson It is with great personal and professional shame that I divulge the following: it took an entire month of occupation at St. James Park before I could bring myself to check out the tent city in person. My neglect wasn’t for lack of interest. Nary a day would pass that I didn’t consider saddling up the Supercycle and heading due east, knapsack strapped, brimming with solidarity, my asymmetrical haircut flapping like the Anarchist flag in the autumn breeze. But that was as far as it went, a vision that stopped cold before I could catch the hubbub. The thing about protest movements is that they mean different things to different people. For a failed activist like myself, they are a reminder of idealism left behind. I’m not sure when I stopped cheerfully advocating for a smashing of the state–I gather it was sometime after my stint as a performer with the unironically named Insurgent Theatre collective (in early 2000s America, no less) and before I joined the board of a cooperative housing corporation–but at some point, I lost faith in my ability to be radical. The same way that listening to Itzhak Perlman makes me curse my childhood refusal to practise the violin, passionately orchestrated protest gatherings make me feel slightly less worthwhile, like I’ve pawned my soul to the Man. I put off visiting the Occupy site because I expected that, like every other activist gathering I’ve encountered since my late teens, it would remind me of where I’d done The Movement wrong. My likely sweatshop-made jeans would give me away, a scarlet letter ‘S’ for “sellout” or, probably, “sucker.” What I didn’t expect, upon visiting to cover an Occupy-related outreach event for another publication, was its particular social structure. One friend compared the site at St. James Park to a miniature village, but I saw it as a high school cafeteria–familiar, even comfortably cliquey. Each group clustered together in its own little tent-marked territory, hand-drawn signs broadcasting humour and orientation. Every community building hung a white board announcing its particular mandate and meeting times like a student club clamouring for members. It was deja vu, plus mud. I was the kind of kid in high school who bounced from one table to the other during lunch time, dividing my time evenly between the choir geeks, the Chicana girls, the jam band stoners, and the back-table freaks. I approached the occupation site this way, too, starting toward the park’s southwestern entrance, nearest the church, and working my way in. I started at the food tent, where the Food Not Bombs cooking crew was dishing out vegan fare from dumpstered ingredients, and politely declined the offer of a meal. “I’m not a camper,” I admitted, walking away before the server could tell me that this was obvious butthat the offer still stood. Further in, I approached the first of the campsite’s three yurts. “Welcome to the YURT” in bold red letters, followed by a list of rules (shoes at the door; no food/drinks/smoking/drugs; only heart and good, sacred intentions), and a separate sign announcing regular yurt yoga sessions. This was the yurt designated for women and children at nighttime, but even in mid-afternoon there were tot-sized wellies lining the doorway. I poked my head inside and shyly waved at a small but diverse crowd congregated within, who stopped their conversation to greet me back. This is where the earth mothers hang, I thought to myself–maybe an over simplification in social tourism, but it felt like a fit. Toward the core of the park, my ears perked at giggles emitting from a blue tent, a ring of cheeky signs planted around it. “We should call our hockey team Hockupy! (See what I did there?)” read one of them. When I stopped to photograph the signage, I found myself half-hoping the tent’s flap would unzip before me, that I’d be invited to join in and find out what was going on in there that was so damn funny. Alas, even in times of protest, the cool kids will keep to themselves. Instead, I moved onto where the angry Anarchists were parked in the back of the park, nearly at its eastern edge. ‘We are very angry Anarchists!’ their signs said by way of white paint F-bombs on swaths of black cloth, jagged proclamations of the various institutions which they, the angry Anarchists, were set on fucking. While earnest Anarchists tend to be lovely, sympathetic people, I never have much to say to the angry ones, so I made my leave. People, even those who should know better, have repeatedly criticized the Occupy movement for lacking a focus. The movement, these people will argue, has become convoluted by too many different groups with their own social agendas taking the focus away from finance–which is, really, the only place any focus belongs. Even before I visited the Occupy site, I wasn’t sure whether I agreed with this viewpoint. Now, having visited, the answer seems obvious. We organize ourselves according to the way we identify and a protest scene, like a high school cafeteria, becomes a place of amplified self-assertion. “This is who we are and where we’re coming from,” say the cliques, both in the caff and at St. James Park. “We may be coming at this thing from different places, but we’re in this mess together.” Against skepticism and eviction notices, the protesters have achieved an impressively docile coexistence. Maybe us sellouts should take note.

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